Tag Archives: author interview

Coffee Break Tuesday with Barbara O’Connor


Welcome to Coffee Break Tuesday, where I sit down with fabulous authors and discuss their writing. Please grab a mug of coffee (or tea) and join us!

Today I’m having coffee with Barbara O’Connor! I’ve long been a fan of her books – and thoroughly enjoyed reading her newest MG book, On The Road to Mr. Mineo’s.

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When a one-legged pigeon named Sherman neglects to return to his roost with the other homing pigeons, Mr. Mineo frets and worries. In the meantime, other members of the town of Meadville, SC spot the pigeon – from Stella who wishes she could have a dog, to mean ol’ Levi and his scabby-kneed germ-infested friends, to Mutt who is known to be the town liar – and thus starts the “great pigeon hunt.” Who will find Sherman first?

Welcome, Barbara! When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always loved to write. As a child, I wrote poems and stories. I wrote my first book when I was 12. It was 76 handwritten pages long. The only problem with it is that I never finished it. In fact, here is the last sentence: “Well, be careful and….” Yep. Stopped writing smack dab in the middle of the sentence. Go figure.

What was the first book you wrote what was it about? (Not necessarily the first book you got published.)

I wrote a very blah and trite book called Surf’s Up, Nicki Weaver that amassed thousands of rejections. (Well, maybe not thousands, but a lot.)

For the record, my first published book was a biography called Mammolina: A Story About Maria Montessori. I started my writing career writing biographies.

What was your journey to publication like?

I lived in Los Angeles many years ago and decided to take a class in writing for children at UCLA. I got totally hooked. I floundered around with some ho-hum manuscripts for a while, collecting my share of rejections. After moving back East, I started toying around writing biographies for children. After a few false starts, I managed to sell my first biography to Carolrhoda. I went on to publish five more biographies with them.

But my heart was still with fiction. I had written a middle grade book called Beethoven in Paradise. A friend of mine published with Scholastic and offered to send it to her editor. That editor liked it but eventually passed on it. She did, however, offer to connect me with an agent, Barbara Markowitz. She sold that manuscript to Frances Foster at FSG. I’ve been with Barbara and Frances for over 18 years now. I just wrapped up my 10th novel with my amazing team.

What is your most recently published book or upcoming book?

My middle grade novel, On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s, came out in October.

There are EIGHT points of view in that book. It damn near killed me.

How have you changed from when you first started out as a (pre-published) writer to now?

I know that I’m more critical of my writing now. I also tend to self-censor more than I used to because I’m more aware of reviews and adult reaction to my work than I used to be. I don’t write with the same “freedom” that I did before I was published. There’s a country-western song that goes “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Ha! I sometimes feel that way.

But the flip side is that I’ve set high expectations for myself. I’m more confident with my writing voice and I have pretty good instincts about when I’ve strayed from it. I’ve also developed a writing style that works for me and that comes a little easier as the years (and books) go by.

Favorite book from childhood?

Trixie Belden all the way.

A favorite book you recently read?

I recently reread Saraswati’s Way by Monika Schroeder. Having spent many years in India (the story’s setting), Schroeder nails the setting and seamlessly weaves the culture into a fast-paced story. I also just finished an arc of Linda Urban’s new book (The Center of Everything). I adore her writing voice and style.

A bit of wisdom to share:

Your writing process should be one that works for you. Just because it works for someone else doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Some people have to write every day, some don’t. Some people plow ahead without polishing along the way, some don’t. Some people outline, some don’t.

Secondly, listen to your instincts. If something in your work is niggling at you, pay attention to it. Maybe you’ve forced something. Maybe you’ve forgotten your voice. Maybe you’re trying to ignore a problem thinking no one else will notice. Pay attention to those things.

For fun – something not a lot of people know about you:

I have no sense of smell. This can be very inconvenient when your stove is on fire, but there are other times when it comes in quite handy.

Barbara O’Connor is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Drawing on her South Carolina roots, Barbara’s books are known for their strong Southern settings and quirky characters. In addition to six Parents Choice Awards and five state children’s book awards, Barbara’s distinctions include School Library Journal Best Books, Kirkus Best Books, Bank Street College Best Books, and ALA Notables. She has had books nominated for awards in thirty-eight states. Barbara is a popular visiting author at schools and a frequent speaker at conferences around the country.

To learn more about Barbara and her books, check out her web site, or follow her on Twitter!

Welcome to the Spotlight – Greg Leitich Smith!


I’m thrilled to welcome author Greg Leitich Smith to the spotlight! I became a fan of his when I read his first middle grade novel, Ninjas, Piranhas, & Galileo (Little, Brown/2003). Greg is quite a genius at mixing science and humor! It’s a true pleasure to introduce to you his newest novel for middle graders, Chronal Engine, with illustrations by Blake Henry (Clarion Books/2012). Stayed tuned below for a chance to win a copy!

Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith

Eighth grader, Max, and his twin older brother and sister are sent to spend the summer with their eccentric grandfather on his secluded ranch. Max, who has a passion for dinosaurs, like his mother, is excited to get a glimpse of the famous dinosaur footprints on the ranch.  All three scoff at the idea that there is a time machine on the premises, but when the grandfather makes an amazing and accurate prediction, gives them a set of mysterious instructions, and Emma is kidnapped out of thin air, they end up believing. Max, Kyle, and new friend Petra use the chronal engine to blast to the past to the time of the dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous to try to save Emma. They battle deadly elements including carnivorous dinosaurs and Emma’s mysterious kidnapper. Readers who love adventure, time-travel, and dinosaurs are sure to love this book!

Spotlight on Greg Leitich Smith:

What was the initial spark for Chronal Engine?

Probably the first glimmering was during writing my second novel, Tofu & T.rex, a comedy in which the protagonist Hans-Peter was a dinosaur enthusiast, and had built a papier-mache T.red head in his basement. I remember thinking it would be kind of fun to write a middle grade/tween novel, with “realistic” dinosaurs in them, that is, dinosaurs as presently understood and reflecting up-to-date and mostly accurate science (more than just a “scream and run” sort of thing). In other words, the kind of book I’d’ve eaten up as a young reader myself. I also thought that to do it right would take an enormous amount of research which I did not want to do at the time.

A couple years later, though, I came back to the idea. But I also thought that that sort of thing had to have been done before. After looking into it, I realized that while there are a lot of anthropomorphized dinosaur picture books, a lot of nonfiction, a handful of classics, and a couple of series books, there didn’t seem to be the sort of realistic, literary science fiction I had in mind. So I dived into the research.

How difficult was it to come up with the concept for the Chronal Engine? It boggles my mind to think about how to make up something that needed to at least seem scientifically sound.

Thank you.  As I said, I went into the project wanting to be kind of hard-core about the dinosaurs, so I figured I had to be at least somewhat hard-core about the time travel.  I also wanted it to be on the science fiction side of things (insofar as time travel can be) which meant something more than a magic portal or some such.  It had to matter to the story.  So it had to be a machine.  Other than that, I didn’t have any real idea about the time travel specifically, except of course that the theoretical underpinnings of time travel are (would be) based on Einstein’s relativity.

So, by this point, I had launched into the dinosaur research and a lot of the history of dinosaur discoveries I’d already known somewhat, but got to learn again: Othniel Marsh, Edward Drinker Cope, Barnum Brown, the Sternbergs, Roy Chapman Andrews, etc., some of the big names from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Now in terms of speculative fiction, to me, that era meant Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, which meant that the mechanism to get the teens back to the Cretaceous had to be, well, a mechanism from that era.  I came up with the name “Chronal Engine” because it sounded appropriate and vaguely steampunkish.  Also, at that time, Einstein and relativity were pretty new, so an engineer applying his theories to building a machine seemed to have that Verne/Wells flavor.  Of course, Wells has his own time machine, but that’s something completely different.

Making it “work” was a little more difficult.  The problem with a time machine, of course, is that it’s a machine.  Which means that it has to have some means of operation and there should be some kind of theoretical underpinning.  So I ended up dusting off my math and physics and doing quite a bit of research on the science of time travel – my background is in electrical engineering so I’ve taken more courses than I care to remember on calculus and differential equations and relativity and quantum mechanics, but I’ll admit I’m a little rusty.

Anyway, almost none of that research ended up in the book, other than a few notes by the inventor, Professor Pierson, to put everything in context.  Although what he says does relatively fairly synopsize some of the theories behind time travel.  Using Edwardian technobabble and hand-waving, of course.

As to the way the Chronal Engine and its Recall Devices are actually shown being used, that’s based on a simple client-server model.

(Note: DEBtastic Reads is at this point just smiling and nodding like she understands what Greg is talking about. 😉 )

You obviously have a great love of and interest in dinosaurs. If you were to time travel to the same time period as your characters, what would be the first thing you’d do? And why?

Make sure I had a way back.  And food, water, and shelter.  Beyond that, I would want to explore and try to find answers to some of the questions about the Late Cretaceous that have been vexing paleontologists lately (and some of which I took sides on in the book).  For example, did sauropods like Alamosaurus typically hold their heads horizontally or vertically?  What did theropods like Albertonykus and Tyrannosaurus rex use their goofy little arms for?  Was Nanotyrannus really a separate species or was it merely a juvenile of Tyrannosaurus rex?  Going back further in time, I’d want to see if I could find a bird earlier than Archaeopteryx.

What’s your favorite dinosaur and why?

So hard to pick just one.  I think, though, it would have to a sauropod, like Alamosaurus or Brachiosaurus or Apatosaurus.

I remember reading a book my parents gave me in first grade, talking about “Brontosaurus,” that was so huge it was given the name “thunder lizard.”  (Which, let’s face it, is far more awesome than “Apatosaurus”).  The book had pictures of it living in a swamp because it needed water to support its great bulk and eating swamp plants because its teeth were too weak to eat, say, ferns or pine needles.  Of course, our ideas of its behavior have come a long way since then, but the idea that there was this animal so much bigger than an elephant that was fascinating and got me hooked on dinosaurs.

And growing up in Chicago, we’d go to the Field Museum, which had sauropod skeletons in the same vicinity as its elephants in the main hall, so you got a true sense of their size.

In addition to Chronal Engine, Greg Leitich Smith is the author of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo, a Parents Choice Gold Medal winner, and its companion, Tofu and T.rex.  He is also the co-author, with his wife, New York Times best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith, of the picture book Santa Knows, and the short story “The Wrath of Dawn,” which appeared in the anthology Geektastic.

Born and raised in Chicago, he holds degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a degree in law from the University of Michigan. He now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife Cynthia and four cats.

For more about Greg, check out his site and read his blog.

Win a copy of Greg’s book! To enter the drawing, follow the rules below. If you’re reading this via a feed, click here to comment.

1. Comment on this post – and for fun, tell me the name of your favorite dinosaur. Mine is triceratops. Please include your email address so I can notify you if you win.

2. Leave your comment by midnight EST, Tuesday, March 27th. Winner will be announced on this blog and will be contacted by email.

3. Winner must have a US or Canada mailing address.

Good luck and thanks for stopping by!